Ashford, Kent is going through an extraordinary and exciting change. It is the only town in the United Kingdom with such direct international rail connectivity and high-speed train links to London.
Underneath Ashford’s significant growth programme, which includes new commercial and retail quarters, is a market town with a valuable history dating as far back as early prehistoric times and a long heritage, rich in business and trade.
With much history residing under the surface, yet only a handful of significant structures resembling its antiquity, you might say that Ashford’s heritage has become undistinguished over recent years.
So, fresh from the launch of the RSA’s Heritage Index, I caught up with Chris Dixon, Ashford’s Arts & Cultural Industries Manager, to tell us how results of the research has sparked a renewed energy in Ashford to upgrade one of its key heritage assets - all the while ensuring the arts, local identity, residents’ memories and wellbeing is at the heart of this new project – lessons that can easily be applied elsewhere.
Fountain of Delight
As part of Create, Ashford’s annual summer festival, Chris piloted a new side event to celebrate the 174th birthday of Mr George Harper, the man who kindly gifted the exuberant Hubert Fountain to Victoria Park (the festival’s home) in 1912.
The free family event, with Victorian dress, quirky fun games, decorative workshops, and a special performance from Mr Harper’s Birthday Whistlers, the Fountain of Delight brought to life a moment from the town’s past, telling the tale of one man’s love of Ashford and its iconic fountain.
The success of the event, and the hidden stories that continue to emerge since the event, threw a spotlight on the fountain. It has prompted thoughts about how a popular music festival can take on more responsibility for the site it works from, and how the role of the arts and creative expertise can help celebrate and engage more people in their local heritage.
Community Engagement Plan
Swiftly assessing Ashford’s overall score in the Heritage Index, where the borough is in the bottom 29% of the country, Chris appointed an experienced creative project manager, artist and educator - Bec Britain - to bring together a small local steering group to enrich the programme around the proposed fountain improvements.
While still its early stages, the Victoria Park Engagement Group is thinking big, ensuring there is involvement from key partners in tourism, employment, leisure, education and volunteering. The founding members are: the local primary school, Ashford College, Ashford Museum, Ashford Volunteer Centre, Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership, and Revelation St Mary’s (the town’s arts venue and Grade 1 listed church).
The group will meet regularly to produce a coherent programme of pilot activities, campaigns, events and training, leading to an ambitious long-term cultural programme of work to accompany the fountain’s proposed transformation. The first meeting brought about four key discussions, asking:
1. Heritage and Research:
- What resources relating to the fountain does the town currently have and how can new resources be accessed?
- Can these resources be shared with schools, walks, and talks to help inform future arts projects, exhibits and archives?
- How can we engage people in an Oral History programme, both as trainees and contributors?
- How can we host an engaging exhibition to reach a wide and diverse audience?
- What more can be done to engage local people with the park and local heritage?
2. Community and Participation & Green Spaces:
- How can we engage hard to reach communities and people who don’t normally visit the park?
- How can we work with partners to identify individuals for specific volunteering opportunities?
- What can be done to ensure a strong partnership with the park maintenance team from the outset and how can relationships be formed to generate opportunities with students and volunteers?
3. Arts and Celebration:
- How can the arts be used to involve communities with the park & fountain heritage and how do we ensure all ages and abilities are catered for, both for learning and celebration?
- How can we effectively/imaginatively survey audiences at these events to inform future work in the park?
- What kind of creative commission could engage audiences and participants in the Mr Harper’s Birthday?
- How can we use these events to transform the park and people’s perceptions of it?
4. Education and Learning
- How can we connect the art and history of the fountain and park to the school/college curriculum or the work of youth groups?
- What support can we give to schools/college/youth groups to encourage park visits?
- How can we best test the project before rolling out to more of these groups?
- What type of resources would be most useful to teachers to encourage wider engagement in the park’s heritage?
- How else can we encourage young people within the involved organisations?
These are good core questions that anybody embarking on a heritage project should ask of their group, and it's exciting to see how using its past, Ashford is developing a programme that draws together all parts of the community.
I’ll be keeping an eye on Ashford, and how the outcomes from these discussions progress. If any Fellows are keen to find out more about this work or keep up to date with these developments, please contact Chris Dixon on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01233 330 352.
Find out how you can take action following on from the RSA Heritage Index, including more about becoming a heritage ambassador.